Inside a Weeklong Zoom Session With Thousands of Rabbis
Each year, Chabad rabbis from all over the world gather in Brooklyn. This year, they gathered over Zoom instead.
In month eight of Zoom hell, after two-quarters of grad school consisting of near-daily three-hour-long video lectures that killed me inside, I found myself enjoying a marathon Zoom meeting: A five-day-long gathering with thousands of Chabad rabbis.
I’d heard about the Zoom meeting, a virtual version of an annual event called Kinus Hashluchim, from a WhatsApp group of Chasidic friends that I belonged to before moving away from New York for school. Having ignored countless Zoom events thus far during the pandemic — Jewish singles board game nights, beer tastings, and galas from nonprofits that I’ve donated money to — I logged on to one of the Kinus Hashluchim’s events on a whim, as I missed my old group of friends. I knew at least the friend who posted it would be on the call. There was also a nostalgia factor, as I am now living in a very non-Jewish neighborhood in Chicago.
What I didn’t expect when I logged in on Tuesday, the third day of the event, was to be logged on until its end on Thursday, and to feel part of a community to which I sometimes feel a tenuous connection.
During non-Covid times, Kinus Hashluchim is held as a weeklong event involving study, drink, and hanging out with old friends.
It is important to the rabbis who attend partly because Chabad, a modern Chasidic movement with European roots starting in the 18th century, has a focus on Jewish outreach. Its thousands of rabbis are emissaries who build communities out of their homes for all types of Jews, everywhere — from American college campuses to small residential communities in Africa. And this focus on missions means that Chabad rabbis are often living away from their own communities, in places where they may be the only Orthodox families. Because running a Chabad House is a 24/7 job, with events taking place within the rabbi’s own home, they need to be religious and professional at all times.
So in addition to offering classes on skills like fundraising, the Kinus Hashluchim does something else: It provides connection with others in the community and an opportunity to be oneself. Much of this rejuvenation comes from unstructured social time. What’s a little regression among friends?
When traveling abroad, I often find a Chabad House to be a welcoming rejuvenating stop, but I’ve never formally attended the Kinus Hashluchim, as it’s not really open to non-emissaries. There are classes geared for helping emissaries run their operations better, not for regular people like myself. But I have witnessed the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights blossom with energy each year during the Kinus, and during a similar event held earlier in the year for Rabbi’s wives, as new faces come to visit, families see relatives, and old friends from Yeshiva (Jewish all-boys schools) reconnect. It was an interesting phenomenon, but I never gave it a second thought until this year.
I first tuned in to the livestream of the banquet that began on Sunday afternoon on Chabad.org, the organization’s site. The annual gala usually occurs in an airport hangar, where approximately 5,000 rabbis eat a multicourse meal and listen to different speakers. This year’s version involved prerecorded messages from emissaries across the globe, which reminded me of the electoral delegates sending video postcard greetings to the Democratic National Convention from across the United States. Singers entertained, and rabbis shared stories of personal triumph over dire circumstances.
The banquet turned out not to be the most interesting event. Like many Chasidic movements, Chabad has celebrations involving singing and togetherness in which a Rebbe, the rabbi who leads the movement, leads the group in song, words of Torah, and eating and drinking. There is no hard and fast rule about who can or can’t lead one, as the last Rebbe of the Chabad movement passed away in the ’90s. It can be a local rabbi or a well-respected teacher. In the Chabad community, these get-togethers are called farbrengens. The Zoom farbrengen began on Saturday night and continued simultaneously with the Kinus’ other events. I didn’t log until late on Tuesday, around 8 p.m.
It had been a long day. I’d taught two college courses back-to-back online, almost four hours on Zoom. I was briefly confused when I didn’t see my friends from the WhatsApp group. I didn’t expect to see a thousand new faces, but quickly I began to enjoy myself nonetheless as rabbis in the movement’s custom unshaven beards sat at their desks or at their dining room tables telling stories and drinking from plastic cups. There was someone always speaking, telling a personal story, or celebrating a success of any size, everything from having a dry cleaner wrap tefillin — leather straps that Jewish people wrap every morning before prayer, and encourage others to use as well — to witnessing an unexplained medical miracle. After one speaker ended, one of the MCs who ran the event called on someone else. The audience, as I saw from the participant list, always neared 1,000, which is the Zoom maximum. Listeners, each with different time zones and schedules, took the Kinus everywhere they went. I saw men carpool their children to school while others fell asleep on camera in an upright position.
It was like watching the most interesting Senate filibuster ever.
The speakers all seemed highly choreographed, with a few MCs who asked specific rabbis in the chat to share a story or some words of wisdom. As some MCs became tired, rabbis from other time zones took over. An emissary in Los Angeles might have passed the baton to a rabbi in South Africa. It was an ever-changing mix of speakers telling miraculous stories and tales of the late grand Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
I usually raise my eyebrows at tales of miracles and unexplained phenomena. I sometimes feel like I’m on the fringes of the community, my career and religious choices not aligned with communal expectation writ large. I might code switch with other members of the movement, showing a familiarity so that I can be seen as one of their own. On the Zoom call, I felt like an anthropologist who desperately wanted to pass as a native, if only my hair was shorter and my beard was longer.
But the sheer accessibility of the Zoom farbrengen made me feel comfortable. My green Crocs were safely hidden. Nobody could see my trim beard.
Though I stayed off-camera, I was surprised to see many faces I recognized. I was reliving my travels, seeing a video of the rabbi from Phnom Penh that I met on a backpacking trip in 2018, or a name of an account that belonged to a Chabad House I attended on a solo road trip through Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2015. More than that, it was an earnest Zoom event with little irony, and I resisted my usual urge to drop facetious comments in the chat box. (Partially out of fear of being booted.)
Regular farbrengens, in person, can verge from ecstatic singing to long homilies to stories of rebbes modern and old. Depending on my mood, I could be into them, often with the aid of Costco-sized bottles of scotch or vodka. (Like the historic McSorley’s Bar in Manhattan, where the beer options are simply dark or light, at Chabad events, liquor often comes in two forms: ‘white’ or ‘yellow’.) Men often began their stories with “lchaims,” holding up a small shot glass or large disposable plastic cup.
This time, I didn’t need the free-flowing booze. The content did the work for me. It was like watching the most interesting Senate filibuster ever. Everyone in the room was muted, there was usually one voice speaking. Sometimes a commenter would chime into the chat box to ask who was speaking, or for the contact info of one of the MCs. A sense of community came from the comments and seeing the other people silently on camera. I DMed people I knew, joking that I was the only person not wearing a white shirt. (There’s no written rule that white and black are God’s chosen colors, but it’s the communal norm.)
I think it was transformative for me not because it made me want to drop everything to open a Chabad House, or because I had some epiphany in the back of a late-night ride-share watching Zoom on my smartphone, but because of a tangible sense of connection with people on a shared mission. I don’t know if it’s my mission, but over Zoom, I felt briefly a part of it. At 12:30 a.m., a little tipsy and a lot inspired, I messaged a friend on Facebook to ask him when he last wore tefillin. At 1:00 a.m., as the sun rose in Israel, I reached out to a backpacker I met last November in Morocco and he promised he would wrap the following day. Perhaps it was a borrowed identity of coaxing acquaintances to be more involved Jewishly, but it felt nice to do my part.
I didn’t come into the Zoom room seeking personal transformation, yet here I was, lchaiming and doing outreach with rabbis from miles away. I logged off at 3 a.m.
Later, I learned that some people couldn’t log on because of the 1,000-person Zoom limit (I should have sold my seat before I left). But some individuals found a way around that and livestreamed it on Facebook and other platforms. In-person events usually start in the evening and last late into the night. There’s no official start/end time, but people have to pray morning prayers sober, hopefully with no vestige of alcohol on their morning breath. But this kept going, not limited to time zones and pesky sunrises.
The next day, I logged on to listen as I graded papers. I logged on with my phone as I rode in a Lyft. It was like an old-school FM radio, or like hearing FDR’s fireside chats. It was comforting and readily available.
The meeting lasted more than 120 hours, as planned. When Zoom is a classroom, I feel like I’m on display with everyone judging me. I hate it. But here I felt like I was at one big party, with everyone giving silent support to each other.
As the event wound down for the scheduled end on Thursday evening, an afterparty started. I tried entering, but it maxed out in a matter of minutes. Sometimes, an after-farbrengen is as selective as a Berlin nightclub.